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Career Coach: Surviving a bad boss

By Joyce E.A. Russell
Monday, September 6, 2010; 17

Most everyone can say they have worked for a bad boss. You know -- those supervisors who dictate what you will work on, how you will do it, and then find fault if it doesn't turn out the way they wanted it. They take the credit for the successes in the group but blame others for failures. They treat people according to rank, maybe they are racist or sexist or play favorites or are a bully. They suck the energy out of the team, rather than inspiring the group. Enough said.

Bad bosses become especially noticeable when you finally experience working for a good one. Those managers are seen as role models, leaders with strong ethics or morals, possessing good business knowledge and overall competence. They are often inspirational or charismatic, and apt to recognize and engage their employees. When working for a good boss, what a difference it makes -- to your morale, work productivity, stress and to your general enthusiasm for work and life in general.

So if you think you are stuck with a bad boss, what can you do to survive?

Get training for your boss.

It is possible it's a training problem. Maybe the boss never had any training in leadership, supervision or diversity. Talk to the human resources department if your firm has one. If not, you might need to talk to your boss. Directly, but politely, tell him or her about your needs for timely, specific feedback or goals. Of course, this won't help with all of those bad boss situations described above, but it may help with some.

There must be an incentive for the boss to change.

To change, your boss has to have a reason or incentive. Managers who put the effort into changing have generally been told by higher-level managers that they have to improve their leadership skills if they want to move up in the organization, receive a raise or get another reward of some type. Or someone has convinced them that enhancing their leadership skills will be important for the good of the firm or their employees -- presuming they care about those things. If you can't convince the boss about the need to change, maybe a higher-level manager can.

Develop a positive relationship with your boss.

If possible, befriend your boss. The boss is more apt to help you if he or she likes you. Of course, depending on what negative things the boss does, this might not be a plausible strategy. If it makes sense to do this, then get to know your boss as a person -- what are his or her hobbies? Interests? Goals at work? The more you understand your boss, the more you might be able to help meet his or her needs and yours as a result.

Understand your boss's moods and style.

While it would be great if we never had to worry about the boss's moods and reactions to things, the reality is that we do need to know these things. Maybe there are certain times -- such as end-of-the-month number crunching -- when it would be smart to postpone a talk with the boss. Or we might know that the boss is introverted and likes to see things in writing before discussing them. This doesn't mean we always have to accommodate the boss. It just means you need to pay attention to your boss and learn how and when to best communicate.

Keep your boss informed.

It is important to periodically keep your boss informed about things you are doing to support the department or the firm. Bosses don't know everything that is going on. They do like to hear what you are doing to support their agenda and mission in the firm.

Find a mentor with the company.

If you love the nature of your work or your firm but hate your boss, another solution is to develop a mentoring relationship with a manager or peer in another department or part of the company. Mentors can provide the career guidance and visibility you need to help you move forward in the organization. They can also provide you with needed psychosocial support, from offering advice to being a sounding board for you.

Report your boss.

You might have to report the bad actions or performance of your boss to a higher-up -- or to someone in human resources. You may need to gather data from co-workers or others to support your case. Obviously, the urgency with which you do this depends on what your boss is doing and the company's policies. One thing to remember is that due to confidentiality issues, you may never get to hear what the HR department or higher-level manager said or did to deal with your boss.

Look for other options.

If you can't find a way to resolve the issues and/or your boss simply will not make a change in behavior, you should start working your network and begin looking for a new job -- within or outside the organization. If you like the company, a transfer might be the best option -- but you'll need a strong support group within the firm to help you make the transfer, especially if you don't want to ask your boss for a recommendation.

Joyce E.A. Russell is the director of the Executive Coaching and Leadership Development Program at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business. She is a licensed industrial and organizational psychologist. She can be reached at jrussell@rhsmith.umd.edu.

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